Sera-Lys McArthur is a Canadian actress and producer, who can be seen in shows such as Outlander and Burden of Truth. Her career spans from her teenage years until the present. Sera-Lys and I had a great conversation about her journey, working on Outlander, those who have influenced her, interests, passions and very much more.
Read on to find out lots more about Sera-Lys McArthur, actress and producer.
DB: What is your earliest memory?
SM: I was sitting on a blanket in the living room and there was my grandparents’ mean, orange-striped cat with light and fluffy hair named Mowzer. I think he scratched me or something shocking. I was probably around a year old.
DB: Can you tell me where you grew up, and what your childhood was like there?
SM: I grew up in a city called Regina, Saskatchewan, and also a bit in the country, with my grandparents. We were in a smaller city called Moose Jaw before that. We were a lower-middle class and single-parent family, a very humble upbringing, I guess you could say. I went to Catholic school which is kind of difficult on a young mind when you’re from a single-parent household, but I think that was still a big part of my identity when I was growing up.
My dad wasn’t really around, but then later in life, he came back. He was more connected to his Nakota spirituality and culture, so he helped my brother and I get involved in our culture and be more aware of what Nation we are and where our ancestors are from. I didn’t even really know which tribal nation I was when I was a child, the language and the difference between me and somebody from another tribal nation. That was a fascinating journey for me to begin to discover. But at first, I felt like an “imposter” because I didn’t know anything about my history. But then you understand that is the history that you don’t know because it’s been taken from your people and you were forced to learn a different type of education, not to be proud of your Indigenous background.
That also translates to the larger art community, so you get to bring that perspective to your work. I always found that quite cathartic and healing and it helped me in a lot of ways. That is one of the reasons why being an actor is so important to me because it’s what got me to accept my Indigenous heritage as something beautiful and special, because it wasn’t treated like that where I was from.
DB: Your name Sera-Lys McArthur, can you explain the origins of both of those names?
SM: Seraphina is my grandmother’s name on my mom’s side, they’re German-Canadian. Gladys is the name of my grandmother on my father’s side. There’s L Y S in that name, so my mom was just making some sort of combination and that’s what she came up with. McArthur is pretty interesting because it’s the Indigenous side of the family’s surname. There was a Scottish settler, Arthur McArthur, he married an Indigenous woman and they had a lot of kids. So, there’s this pocket of McArthurs and even though we don’t have a lot of connection to the Scots on that side we still really enjoy that there is one.
DB: Can you recall the first record or CD you ever bought with your own money?
SM: It was a Tina Turner Greatest Hits album. I love her and I wish that I would have been able to see her perform live. Maybe someday.
DB: I was very lucky and got to see her live, but that was over 30 years ago. Amazing woman! When did you first start performing?
SM: It depends what you consider performing as I went into it from different sides. When I was a kid, I used to play make-believe stories and re-enact movies and tried to get my mom to do them with me, that’s really where it started. Then I started modelling when I was about 11. I was at an agency, then I took classes, did some more fashion shows and photoshoots and that’s how they found me for the audition for Revenge of the Land, which Carmen [Moore] was also in; she played my mom in that.
I started playing the flute when I was 12, and I took it quite seriously doing colour guard and being in parades. I was quite musical, I liked singing and I wanted to learn more, so when I was about 14, I started doing musical theatre. Then I had to choose to focus on either playing the flute or musical theatre, so I focused on musical theatre. I started dancing when I was about 14 – I auditioned to join a private performing arts company called Do It with Class, Young People’s Theatre. We had our musical theatre classes on the weekends and created little shows and performed them at different events. We’d create one week runs so people could come and watch. I took dance: ballet, jazz and tap. I also started taking voice lessons through the same musical director, as a separate class. These were all at the Conservatory of Music and Dance.
DB: When the transition came after leaving school, where did you go and what did you do?
SM: I was totally into musical theatre and acting but there weren’t that many things filming in Regina, so I thought, ‘I still want to do musical theatre, I guess Broadway.’ You know, when you’re a kid you make these huge plans and I kept telling my mom I was going to move to New York from when I was 15. I graduated from high school, got on a plane the next morning and went to New York. I had gotten into the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and I was living my own new life as an 18-year-old.
It was there that I started to realise that acting was my forte and that’s where I wanted to focus. When I graduated from there, I did some more modelling and then noticed that there weren’t a lot of things filming in New York, so I moved to Vancouver. That was about three years in New York and then Vancouver for a couple of years and then I moved to England to the University of Essex’s Acting Master’s programme. Then I went to LA and tried to do the acting thing but that was during our last recession, so it wasn’t the best time being there. I was so glad that I got the experience of living there though because it’s very intimidating. Sometimes you get call-backs and they’ll fly you into LA and you have to go into a roomful of executives and do these auditions, and if I hadn’t have lived there for a year I think I would have been way out of my league.
Then I decided to move to Toronto because they have a wonderfully diverse arts industry: a lot of theatre, commercials, TV shows and some films as well. This seemed like a well-rounded place to keep pursuing from but then I love New York so much, I couldn’t seem to stay away. Now I am working a lot in Canada and then, in between gigs, I go back to New York. I’m still pursuing my career in New York as well, it’s just a much different animal: huge, so many people and a lot more film and television work than there used to be.
Now, during Covid-19 a lot is folded and quite a few Canadian Broadway actors got sent home. Interestingly, I was speaking with the producer of Burden of Truth and now we’re so limited with so much extra cost involved, he said, because all these Broadway actors came home, now there’s a new pool of local talent to choose from.
DB: What was your experience of London?
SM: I had an excellent time in London, and it was one of the best years of my young life. I’m very adventurous and I wanted a new experience, to interact with a new culture, and it wasn’t just British culture. We had an international class, 17 students from 15 different countries, and for many of them English was their second or third language, so I was able to interact with these different nationalities, perspectives and backgrounds of people. Because of my scholarship, I was able to afford to live in a flat in London and just take the Tube every day. My weekends were very fun and busy because I was going to Soho and partying in the bars. If I would go back and do over it, I would have stayed in London a little bit longer, but I wanted to move to LA. I was dating someone there and I thought I was going do the whole “Hollywood” thing.
DB: What was your next major professional role that stands out in your mind?
SM: The Englishman’s Boy was the same director who had hired me the first time I ever acted, John N. Smith. He’s known for The Boys of St. Vincent and Dangerous Minds. I had heard that he was making another miniseries, and I didn’t really think that there would be a role for me. The casting director wasn’t even going to give me a slot in Vancouver because I had just moved there. I was speaking to the casting assistant (also an actor and from where I’m from) and I said, “Okay, look… just tell John that it’s me and that I worked with him on Revenge of the Land. He said, “Oh, well, we have to see her.”
I got the audition and it was very intense, dying in a fire. It was interesting because it consisted of me interviewing with him on camera, and then doing an improv segment of being trapped inside a burning building. It went really well, and they ended up casting me first in the whole project because they thought I was perfect for the role. I didn’t have any set-out lines to say, because she was Indigenous and wouldn’t be able to communicate with the lead characters very well. But the director said, ‘“Well right now there are no lines written for your character, but I don’t see why she wouldn’t try to speak.” I said I didn’t know how to speak Nakota, but I could talk to my dad and he could put me in touch with someone who could. I got to write lines that I thought the character would say, got those approved, and then worked with a linguist who helped break it down for me. I was coached by an elder when I got to Saskatchewan so that I could get more of the nuance, cadence and authenticity of it.
DB: How did they break it down for you?
SM: I have taken phonetics and learned the International Phonetic Alphabet, so that’s how the linguist sent it to me. Then we spoke on the phone and I tried to mimic what she was saying. I have been able to catch on to Nakota a lot faster each time that I get to use it for a different role.
DB: Outlander: what are your abiding memories of working on the show?
SM: It was one of the best professional experiences of my life. I was flown to Scotland – you have to get the visa – and it feels very special, unbelievable almost, that they’re flying you over there to work. It was the biggest budget thing I’ve ever worked on, so it was cool to see the scope of the production. I felt very supported because I got to work with Carol Ann Crawford (the linguist that helps with our dialect coaching) and we had a Mohawk elder named Eva there who had also flown out to help us with the nuances.
I just loved staying up in this town called Pitlochry, it was just so quaint and cute. We got to stay in a Castle Hotel, and it was interesting to interact with a new culture. I hadn’t gone to Scotland when I lived in London, so it was really nice to go there and finally get to see it all. It was lovely, unusually sunny and I had a horse-riding hack.
That could have been a totally overwhelming experience, but because some of my friends were there and actors that I’d worked with before, and people who knew my family, I felt a lot more at home and with friends. I think the other thing about it was because I had done a role that was very dramatic where I had to die in a fire before, and to speak an indigenous language, I wasn’t intimidated by that – I felt it to be a welcome challenge.
When we got to set Mairzee Almas was our director and she’s amazing! I loved every second of working with her. She has such amazing energy, very fun and hyper, and has a sailor’s mouth. She was super together, telling people what to do and really had authority, without having to demand it. You don’t get to work with very many female directors, generally, so it was really cool to interact with her.
DB: “Providence” is a fantastic episode!
SM: It really is, and it’s still kind of funny the way that the whole season arcs because Yan Tual and I are only in that episode but we’re such a big story feature. It was really nice, even though I didn’t get to meet Sam and Caitriona which would have been awesome.
DB: But Richard Rankin, you met him.
SM: Oh yes, he was with Yan as well and he stayed near us. Some of us were in the same hotel as each other: me, Carmen, Tom Jackson, so we got to bond as a little group.
DB: What was it that struck you about Scotland as being so different from when you were in London?
SM: What struck me about Scotland was, it’s humble, it reminds me more of Canada. Even though Glasgow is a big city, it seemed a little bit more friendly, not as stressful because people aren’t running around as much. I love the excitement about big cities, but I also really enjoyed the laid back, friendly vibe in Scotland. The food is interesting, so I ate haggis and tried different Scotch whiskies.
Everyone in Scotland is so nice, they really went out of their way to be friendly and make me feel welcome, even if I couldn’t understand what they were saying all the time, the accent was so thick.
DB: The way your character walks into the fire, could you describe for me how they went about creating that?
SM: That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my career, up close. It was a huge scene with all these different angles, so it took us two days to film it. First, they put Yan up there [on the pyre] with a few flame bars not anywhere near him, just using a bit of smoke to make it seem like he was burning, so he’s doing all the acting of that. Then a male stunt double stood there but with more actual fire coming up underneath him – I believe he had like a flame-retardant gel on his legs – and they put in more smoke. He had to make his hair cover his face, so that you don’t know who it really was, and writhe in pain.
I got to walk towards the fire as me because I was the eyeline for Richard and Braeden [Clarke]. They were filming them and the fire with the stunt double. First, they did a full burn of the stunt double, who was in a flame-retardant suit, and I was walking towards him while he’s on fire. I could only come within six feet or so, they had a mark for me as far as I could go. Then I literally dove off camera so that they could keep the shot going with him and the guys would look at me and just pretend that I was going up there.
Then they did my stunt double, who also wore a flame-retardant suit with the costume over the top; she had a straw in her mouth to breathe through. They had to set the male stunt double on fire first (this whole thing can only take 15 seconds of the shot, for safety) and then she had to walk towards the pyre. I had already mapped out how I was doing it, I did do it a couple of times where I just went up and hugged him when he wasn’t on fire and she had to follow my movements. I initially thought I was going to run but because she would be wearing that suit, couldn’t see very much and had to just go by feeling, we walked. They could only afford to do that once because it’s two people burning and very expensive. She stumbled as she went up there and kind of face planted into the other double but still managed to get into the right position, however, the straw that she was breathing through melted. They put them out after the 15 seconds and then she realised she had second-degree burns on her lips!
DB: I’m assuming they had a fire engine there on standby.
SM: Yes, they did. We actually had a really nice story that happened with that. I think his name was David Kay, the firefighter that was there with the fire truck. You have to keep it just close enough that you can’t see it in any shots, but it’s there in case you need it – we’re in a national park so you don’t want any fires to get out of hand. One of the girls who was a supporting artist is a firefighter in a First Nations community in Alberta. She was the one that was standing next to me when I was holding the baby, kind of like Johiehon’s companion. She had been speaking to the Scottish firefighter and he showed her his fire “jumpsuit” that they wear for safety. She said, “Oh yeah, our fire department can’t afford those. I always wanted one but maybe we’ll get them someday.” On the last day of filming, he brought one of his old suits for her. She was really choked up and said, “It’s not every day someone gives you a present that could save your life.” She sent him a bunch of swag from her fire department back to him in Scotland this year. It’s really nice that we created some real connections and there was a lot of community share from that experience.
DB: Babies. The saying goes “never work with children and animals.” Is it true?
SM: I broke that rule, a lot! The babies were so cute, adorable little twins. Essentially they wanted an Indigenous baby with blue eyes, and they found one and were going to bring it from Canada to the UK and its mom was going to be one of the background performers, but then the baby got ill, so they didn’t bring that Mohawk baby. Somehow these 10-month-old twin girls from Edinburgh got scouted. One was named Sadie and the other one Neve. Neve was incredibly happy and easy-going on the first day of filming and Sadie was the more emotional, fussy one. They had two nannies and the mom, watching one baby, and then me with the other baby and they would go and swap them out if they needed to.
It is Neve in the first scene where Johiehon comes up and is holding her and they have a cute little moment. But then it was all the fire stuff, so we had Sadie and she was a bit scared because there was Yan screaming, smoke around and noise. We were at a safe distance but then I had to be upset and was holding her, and it was quite an experience for her, I’m sure. And then when I put her down in the basket, she kept rolling out, on purpose and we’d have to be like, “Pick up the baby… again!” She knew that if she did that, we would all pay attention to her, you know because she was so cute and so funny.
DB: When you have a scene like that, where you have to reach heightened emotions, how do you go about it, mentally? Is it that you’re identifying deeply with the character and what the character is feeling?
SM: That is usually my starting point because that’s the easiest and newest experience, so you can feel the fresh emotions, but that doesn’t really last for two days of filming. So, then you have to think about other things, and I that’s where different acting techniques come in, with emotional memory, etcetera. The reason why acting is so hard to quantify is because everyone does something a little bit different and it’s not like, “Oh, each time I approach role I’m going to do it like this,” it doesn’t work that way but I have learned different techniques to keep myself going. There are some simple ones like drinking a lot of water, if your body has a lot of moisture in it then you’re able to cry more, then there’s also being a little bit hungry, it makes me on edge and my emotions are close to the surface; I don’t think I know anyone who gets as “hangry” as I do! (Both laugh) I do think about sad things, times in my life when I had some dark feelings, or something happened that was heart-breaking, and you can bring that to it. It’s almost like you tap into it and then can keep emoting from there, but it also is very important to try and stay in the moment. What I like to think about, when I do use an emotional memory, is just tapping into it and allowing the vulnerability of that, but then focusing on the scene again. You know, it’s not therapy, it’s art, so it has to be constructive and creative.
DB: Costuming on Outlander and more generally, how does it help you create a character?
SM: It helps a lot! The costumers did a lot of research on Outlander to create the authentic look of the time and the region. I’m not from a Woodlands tribe so the women of my people didn’t wear pants, but these women wore basically leather leggings with a tunic and a belt. I liked it a lot because you can move around quite well and it’s breathable, so you’re not too hot. Generally, it’s quite comfortable clothing, you don’t have to worry about corsets, high heels and stockings.
I also really like being able to have a costume that has all those things too but that doesn’t come up as much, playing Indigenous characters. I did a play in Winnipeg called Sarah Ballenden and it was fur trade era Hudson Bay Company, 1850, and they made me this corseted gown that I wore through the whole play. That was really nice because it kept me erect and that informs how you move, and how society sees you. A lot of costuming helps with all of that because otherwise I just move like a modern person.
DB: What about footwear?
SM: Important. They had woodlands moccasins for us but then we put a little extra layer underneath on the sole so that we had a bit more padding. For Sarah Ballenden they got us little period shoes with a little heel, very cute. We call them our “show shoes”. It depends on the character but when you’re doing a play you start using your show shoes pretty early on in the process. You might just be wearing a rehearsal skirt and your show shoes so that you know how you move with those elements on.
DB: When you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, in full costume, what’s your instant reaction when you’re finished, ready to go on set?
SM: It feels really fun! I don’t really know how to explain it, but it makes me excited and I feel like I’m playing pretend. I think a lot of people like to do costumes or cosplay and go to events and I think it’s got this element of excitement and make-believe. I get to do that at work, a lot. When I play modern characters like Kodie Chartrand on Burden of Truth, I dress similarly to how I actually dress, so it felt a lot closer to me than Johiehon or Sarah.
DB: Also seeing everybody around in costume and the sets must make a big difference.
SM: The excitement just builds after you see yourself and you look cool and interesting and you start walking around in the look and feel of this character and then you look around and you see everyone else! You’re like, ‘Oh my God, you guys look awesome!’ Then you see the whole set and the details that they have put into everything, how realistic it looks, how they intermingled natural elements with set-pieces so that they would kind of complement each other, it was so well done.
DB: And you would never know, as a viewer.
SM: You would have no idea that that stone there isn’t real stone. It was all the little things like lacrosse, the fish and things like that. I loved all the tiny details which don’t have to be there, you could have got away without them, but still make it look like a painting. It is almost like being in a living diorama. They did do a lot of research because when we got to see the Native village it was a big unveiling.
DB: What was your first reaction when you watched it on screen when it was all finished, edited, the music…?
SM: I don’t know if it means that I’m a good actor, or if I just empathise with myself very easily, but when I watch scenes where I’m emotional I get very emotional – at least the first few times that I watch it. I thought it looked beautiful, very cinematic. I love the way it was tied together.
The first scene was so nice for me to navigate as an actor, to be able to switch languages midstream and that felt like a lovely, naturalistic, nuanced performance. The second one was a nice scene as well but then the last one was just this epic thing and when the music came in… I had hoped that they were going to let Mairzee use that music because she wanted to use that from the beginning and had played that piece for us while we were there for filming. We were all listening to this music, and she said, “Just picture it,” and we’re getting teary-eyed, just imagining it all and thinking, ‘This is going to be like Last of the Mohicans epic!’
I was really happy to see that they went with her idea and that the editing favoured me because when I get into a character I just bring as much as I can, but it wasn’t really reflected in the script. Originally it was just action beats. “During the slow-motion sequence Johiehon is standing with the baby, crying” and they wanted it to be that I threw the baby and Kaheroton [Braeden Clarke] would twist his body to catch it. I got there and Mairzee said, “Yeah, we’re not doing that!” It would have looked funny, and that wasn’t what we were going for in that moment. I spoke about what Johiehon would be going through before she decided to leave the baby and go up there, none of that was really in the script. I didn’t know if the edit was going to favour that journey or not and thankfully, they really did focus on it. I felt very cathartic watching it because it was like all that work you did, all those dark things you had to think about, created this beautiful scene.
DB: I’m so impressed with how that came to life. An astonishing piece of work!
Do you usually watch yourself on screen?
SM: Yes, I’m always learning and it’s a visual medium and you need to know how things are translating and to grow from it. When I was younger it was shocking to my system to see myself from that angle and not be self-conscious about all these little details that aren’t even important. I think that’s why some people don’t watch themselves because they get that self-conscious feeling and when you’re watching it your ego keeps spiking up, it takes a while to get used to that. When I was younger, especially when I was a teenager, it was a really weird experience to go through because when you’re a teenager you don’t feel comfortable in your own body and are just very insecure about everything. I was kind of shocked that that’s what I looked and sounded like. I would give myself a break after watching it the first time and then a few days later when I watched it again, my ego had calmed down because I already knew what I’m going to see. Then I could be a bit more objective about the performance, the different techniques, technical elements.
DB: What would your advice be to anyone who is considering acting as a career?
SM: I would say that if you love it, then just keep on trying to do it. It takes a lot of gumption and drive and you do have successes but there’s a lot of rejection. As long as you’re ready for the long haul because not everybody turns into a star overnight. You have to truly want it, I think, in order to do it. It’s been great in my life and I’ve grown so much in the past 20 years of acting. With all the talent in the world, it’s still a hard grind. I think it’s something about being ambitious about your career but not being too attached to the outcome.
I’m glad I stuck it out because now there’s a lot more opportunities for women, people of colour, Indigenous people specifically, and the range of the stories is growing as well. It was very frustrating for me to be a young person and not be invited to audition for roles that I knew I probably could get because of the way I looked. Now I’m treated as being more special instead of having it be a hindrance to me getting in the room. The roles that I go for are still limited but there’s a lot more variety and opportunities than there used to be. The more you work, the more connections you make, the better you become, and you can’t really exchange experience for anything else. You can go to acting school, learn all the tricks, be amazing but until you’re on set and utilising it you are not going to really have put yourself to the test. I think that it’s more of a journey of personal growth than a pinnacle point to hit.
DB: The latest thing that you’ve just been doing is a short film.
SM: Yes, it’s basically a proof of concept short film for a feature film that I’m also helping produce. I’ve been on board with this project for several years for development. We applied for funding to make the short so that we might be able to get more investors interested and for a chance for the director to prove that she could direct in that genre. We were awarded a special grant to make it, so even though we’re over budget right now and we’re going to need to look for more money, we managed to get it all in the can.
DB: What was that like filming compared with how you would have done it, previous to Covid-19?
SM: That was another added challenge, quite difficult and a little bit scary. As a producer, and the person whose company is the one liable for everything happening on the set, I had to be very careful, there’s no insurance coverage at all for if anyone gets Covid. I had to hire a Covid-Care Coordinator, buy a lot of PPE and come up with guidelines for how we were going to conduct ourselves on set. There were the people who had to get tested beforehand, so all the people that were going to be possibly around each other without PPE at some point because we’re acting on-set or in close quarters with the actors. That was a pod within the set.
DB: Prior to that, you did Burden of Truth. How was that show received?
SM: That was before Covid-19. I think it’s been received really well, and ratings went up significantly in the US, from the previous season. I think it’s a show that continues to grow and delves into a deeper territory for the subject matter. It’s been a great experience for me and it was nice to be able to live with a character throughout an entire season, and have the ups and downs of the storylines and truly be a part of something that had emotional growth, as well as societal messages.
I don’t want to sound biased, because I’ve had some great experiences with people and crews from different projects, but it really started to feel like a family there and just a wonderful place to go to work. I appreciate the producers because they did this top-down treatment of people, where you feel like you’re being acknowledged as part of the team. That genuinely helps with the overall morale of everybody working together and feeling cohesive. They would do little things like bringing an ice cream truck or speciality coffees to set.
DB: Just briefly touching on the COVID situation outside work. How has it affected you in your everyday life and are there any things that you found useful in coping with this strange new world?
SM: It has really affected me in that I know people who have died, so that is very serious for me and sad and strange because it wasn’t like I was able to see them anytime recently before they passed, but I will miss seeing them when we do start to do things again, in groups, and they’re not there, you know.
DB: Obviously travel now is quite hard but you’re managing it. Do you enjoy travel?
SM: I love travelling and that’s one of the major things that was a total bummer about this shutdown. We had plans to go on a couple of trips this year to new places, we were even thinking of going back to Scotland and then, that wasn’t going to happen either. And then finally, because I had these upcoming jobs in Canada, it was, ‘Let’s just go to Canada, do these jobs and chill out’. It’s just a lot calmer up here right now and we can focus and get back to work because it’s so hard when the industry is basically ripped away from you, and you’re just waiting to see if it’s going to happen again. That’s why we pushed to do that short film during this time because people are saying that there’s going to be another wave coming in the fall, and we have to navigate how to do these sets safely. The worry is that smaller productions, like ones that I work on as a producer, cannot compete with the kind of budget that these other ones have, and all of that [PPE etc.] costs a lot of money. Luckily, most of our scenes were out outdoors, so we had that on our side.
When I was doing the pickups for The First Encounter movie, those were able to happen because they had applied to the Indigenous Screen Office of Netflix, and they gave funding to help finish the project. Everything is still very precarious and not reliable but there are efforts being made to help keep our industry going, and I’m very grateful for that.
DB: When you’re travelling what sort of music would you have on your playlist?
SM: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of old reggae, ska reggae, from people like Marcia Griffiths. I have an eclectic taste in music. When I work out, I listen to Britney Spears and other pop artists like Lady Gaga. I like older jazz as well: usually vocals, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald.
DB: Outside of work, and under normal circumstances, what other passions, interests and hobbies have you?
SM: A lot of my stuff ties back into being an actor and I like to indulge in special skills development, so I like horseback riding, Kung Fu. I do things to just have fun and enjoy myself, so just something as simple as taking the dog to the park and playing fetch with him, or going on a kayak or canoe, going to the beach, those sorts of things.
DB: What are you reading at the moment?
SM: Scripts. I am a producer and I am working on developing that side of my career, so I’m working with screenwriters and helping them develop storylines. Once we have a strong enough scripts and a “pitch deck” – where you use some visuals and comparisons to other movies that are similar, pictures of the actors you want to use, what the storyline is – that’s how you can pitch it to different funding organisations and big producers who have connections for funding. I have three feature films that I’m helping develop, and I’m rereading those scripts and sending notes. So that’s basically all I have time to read.
I’m probably going to start working on a script with a co-writer, as well. I think because I have a bit of ADD or something, I find writing incredibly challenging, so I think that co-writing will be more beneficial for me.
DB: Who has been the most influential person or people in your life?
SM: My mom was really supportive of me, she never told me I couldn’t do anything that I wanted to do. I needed someone to support me and tell me that they believed in me and she would drive me to all my lessons and help me find funding for them.
I think the director that first hired me, John N. Smith, really impacted my life and my career by giving me a chance and then believing me as well, hiring me to do jobs and trusting me with writing my own lines as a creative collaborator, rather than just like a talking head. I see John as a sort of “art father” for me and there are very cherished memories working with him because he’s so constructive.
DB: Do you think that gives you your own vision of what being a good director, and team builder is?
SM: I do, it’s challenging but I think that’s why, with producing, I try to make it as positive on set as possible and try to keep everybody happy. It’s like acting, you learn from your mistakes, and when you’re a new producer there’re going to be mistakes. People are very sensitive, as well, in the industry and when you’re doing smaller passion projects, everyone wants to have their voice heard. Communication is such a big thing and I’ve seen John, the way he interacts with actors and he had rehearsals, which not a lot of screen directors do.
When I was a kid, they had me and Carmen [Moore] rehearse so we could bond as mother and daughter. There was a scene where he said, “This scene needs to breathe a bit, why don’t you guys improvise something?” He came back and we did our scene. He was going around to see what he’d be looking at, but also to see if I would get distracted by the camera and the person being there. Looking back on it I know he was testing me, but I didn’t know that at the time. Now I understand that’s very important, especially when working with young actors because they have a tendency to look at the camera.
DB: What could you not live without?
SM: I couldn’t live without water. You must have noticed how often I’ve been drinking water; I have a slight addiction. If I don’t have my water bottle, I feel very anxious and thirsty. And then, because I take my water bottle with me everywhere, I have a history of losing them in the weirdest places. I like these Contigo ones because they have a little clip, and I manage to hang on to them a lot longer.
DB: If you could be granted one wish, right now, what would it be?
SM: I would wish that COVID would go away and we could go back to the way we were. It’s definitely, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. I tend to get uncomfortable when things are going well because I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop… but this time it was a global pandemic, which is too bad.
DB: I think that would be on a lot of people’s one wish list.
[Edited by Grace Rainbow]
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